Does State Law Apply To Maritime Cases?

Tug boat docked at dusk.


American maritime law, particularly the Jones Act, is largely based on a number of federal statutes aimed at protecting the rights of maritime workers.

By virtue of being federal laws, maritime law in America takes precedence in any legal action involving injuries at sea, at port, on oil rigs, and so on. These laws are the same for any American maritime case, no matter in what state or body of water the accident happened, and the same laws are applied to each individual injury.

There are, however, rare cases where state law may come into play. While state law isn’t able to supersede or contradict federal maritime laws, there are certain times where state law can factor into how the case as a whole plays out.

State Law Regarding Contracts

Before it can be decided that maritime law applies to your case, the courts first need to determine whether or not the work you were performing falls within the definition of “maritime work”. A Supreme Court ruling from the 1870s states that this can be determined by “the nature and subject matter of the contract”, in regards to the work being performed. While this is a little vague, subsequent rulings have focused on whether the contract in question pertains to maritime commerce, be it shipping, oil work, and the like.

Put simply, if the court finds the nature of your contract to be primarily focused on maritime business, then your case will be tried under federal maritime law, as opposed to the state laws of wherever you filed your claim.

Filing A Maritime Case In State Courts

The Constitution of the United States itself requires that maritime cases be placed under the jurisdiction of federal courts – however, this does not mean that the case itself cannot be initially filed in a state court.

If you have been injured while working on the water in Texas, for example, and you seek the counsel of a Houston maritime lawyer, then your case could either be filed in federal court or in Texas state court, depending on the various circumstances surrounding your case. As stated, this will have no bearing as to whether or not federal maritime law can be applied to your case, and the court to file in will depend more on your specific claim than anything else.

Applying State Law to Maritime Cases

The term “substantive law” refers to how a person can behave under the letter of the law. For example, the Jones Act is a substantive law in that it allows injured maritime workers to seek damages against their employers relating to their injuries.

State courts hearing out federal cases (as determined by the presence of maritime law) must apply federal law to any substantive matters, including those protected by the Jones Act. However, state courts are also allowed to apply their own procedural laws.

Procedural laws differ from substantive laws in that they dictate how the court will hear the case in question. Every state will have its own procedural laws that dictate how the case can proceed, and these laws may have an impact on exactly how your case proceeds.

So while each maritime case will be tried under federal maritime law, each individual case may be affected by the laws and procedures of the state in which it is filed, from the way your case is tried to the way you may be issued your potential winnings. Keeping this in mind may prove advantageous to your case overall.

If you need to file a maritime law claim anywhere in the United States, trust the maritime lawyers of O’Bryan Law to help fight for you.